Hello from my home base in Washington, DC! After a lot of late winter travel, it’s been so nice to spend a few consecutive weeks here. I’ve lined my front porch with pots of flowers, made a couple home-cooked meals (beet risotto, yum) and spent quality time with the people I love, aka, my essential support system.
The backstory here is that improv always seemed terrifying to me. I get performance anxiety as badly as anyone else, and one of my worst fears is freezing when I’m supposed to be funny in front of people. Nothing makes me cringe more than watching comics bomb, and I never thought I would willingly put myself in that vulnerable situation.
(Sidenote: The nice part about being a yoga instructor is that I don’t think anyone expects me to be funny. When a joke lands, it's like an extra bonus among all the deep breaths, stretching and mindfulness that people had in mind when they signed up for class. Low pressure = occasional funny-ness.)
However, I know that facing your fears is always great therapy. So when my social worker friend Erin asked me to take the class with her, I responded by 1) Starring the email in my inbox for a very long time, 2) Responding finally to say, “Suuuuuure let’s do this,” 3) Cringing when she wrote back to say she had actually signed up because it meant I really had to, and 4) Becoming increasingly nervous as we moved closer to the start date of the class.
My nervousness went away fairly quickly though. Right away, the seven other ladies in our Friday morning class felt familiar to me. We are all devoting our lives to helping others, and we want to be able to have more fun in the process. Together, we greet each exercise, giggle at our creative attempts and thoughtfully analyze how these improv techniques could apply to our helping work. Plus, the exercises build on simple skills and include enough instruction that I never feel like I am left bumbling around on stage for too long.
I love that improv invites me to become more present. During one exercise, I partnered with another women, and documentary-style (a la “The Office” or “Best In Show”), we simply had to agree with each other. The stuff that began flying out of our mouths was hilarious--it turned into a total spoof on “style gurus,” and how they are trying to figure out how to honor people’s “inner beauty” while fixing the problem of their “outer ugliness.”
As my partner and I fed on each other’s energy, I had no idea where the ideas were coming from. We weren’t trying to be funny. We were just funny. Instead of it feeding my ego, I felt humbled to the amazing power of creative energy flowing through us. While biking home, I noticed more colors, sounds and smells. Instead of trying to be present, I just was present. My brain was quieter, and I felt calm.
And let’s be clear: Sometimes I am totally not funny. My lines can fall flat and my characters turn out to be creepy. Sometimes I compare myself to others in the class who always crack everyone up. This makes sense, because any time I approach a creative endeavor, my inner critic shows up. As always, she is allowed to come along and make her snarky comments. However, I still don’t let her make any decisions.
I think my favorite part of improv is embracing the philosophy of “Yes and…”. This central idea is extremely important when you’re in a scene. Since we don’t use props and are changing characters all the time, shared agreement is essential for setting the stage enough for the audience to understand what’s happening.
For example, if two of us are sitting there, and someone says, “Wow, I love the movies!” and I respond with, “No, I don’t want to be at the movies, let’s go for a bike ride instead,” the scene shuts down. Are we riding bikes or at the movies?
But if I said, “Oh. we’re at the movies and I’m about to have a MAJOR BREAKDOWN about how much I don’t want to be at the movies and I want to go for a BIKE RIDE RIGHT NOW!!!!” I am staying in agreement and adding my opinion. Can you see how the second option has the potential to be way funnier?
This translates in so many great ways to other parts of my life. I realize how often my mind wants to negate other opinions and ideas. When I’m in a conversation and I say, “No, you don’t understand, ” it can completely shut down a conversation. When I respond with “Yes and, ” it opens the door to greater intimacy (at least a crack).
It can be hard to listen, especially when someone holds a very different view from mine. Yet, it’s so important. But as with my improv scenes, I’m learning that listening doesn’t mean having to change my mind. Agreement through listening provides a shared platform for ideas to arise and build on each other. Even if both parties have differing opinions, real listening with the, “Yes and…” philosophy means there’s space for an open, fresh exchange, instead of empty arguing.
Our government and media are perfect examples of the stultifying results of poor listening. I really have a fantasy of both parties in Congress taking an improv course together. I think it would change our country for the better in so many essential ways.
(I’ve also been learning about listening and constructive interaction SO much during my Integral Facilitation training, which is simply the best thing I’ve ever done with my time, energy and money. I highly suggest you sign up if you can.)
Finally, the “Yes and…” philosophy has also helped me with my self-care. When I make a “mistake” by eating too much cheesecake, or not exercising for a few days in a row, it’s really easy to want to negate myself. I can waste so much of my precious energy with my, “No, you shouldn’t have done that!” brain chatter.
I’m learning about utilizing more of the the “Yes and…” energy in these moments. Since I can’t change the past, it’s much more useful to see how I can build on what has happened, and keep moving in the direction of solid self-care.
Curious what that would sound like? Let’s see...
“Yes, I haven’t been perfect, and yes, I am still trying, and yes, I see this self-care thing as a lifelong process. Yes, the more I falter and pick myself back up, I am truly proving to my deepest self that I can be my own best caregiver. Yes, and I recognize that other people struggle with this self-care stuff all the time, and yes, I can reach out and share my struggle and set better boundaries and ask for support. Yes, and I will mess up again and each time it’s a chance for me to show my true strength: Yes and yes, yes, YES!”